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Look inside the James Museum of Western and Wildlife Art, opening Saturday

Workers from Creative Sign Designs, Tampa, erect signage in front of the painting, Passage III, 1999, by Dan Namingha at the James Museum of Western and Wildlife Art in St. Petersburg. The museum will open to the public April 7 with a grand opening scheduled for April 28-29. SCOTT KEELER | Times
Published Apr. 4, 2018

ST. PETERSBURG

As in the landscape of the American Southwest, the James Museum of Western and Wildlife Art in downtown St. Petersburg has a particular grandeur.

This dream of philanthropists and collectors Tom and Mary James has a "soft" public opening Saturday and a grand opening on April 28. The Tampa Bay Times was granted a private preview, with only minor tweaks left for the multimillion-dollar building.

"I wanted to have a museum that tells the story of the West," said James, 75, chairman emeritus of financial giant Raymond James. "To go back and get into all the factors, including how the government reneged on promises to the Indians."

The 400 works on view have been culled from the couple's collection of about 3,000, chosen to highlight the collection's breadth. Architect Yann Weymouth, in collaboration with architectural firms Harvard Jolly and Wannemacher Jensen, has created a conceptual homage, repurposing the museum's 80,000 square feet in what had been a business headquarters, using materials and colors evocative of the natural elements represented in many of the paintings and sculptures.

James purchased the building at 150 Central Ave., about 134,000 square feet and covering a city block, in 2015. The extra space will house businesses including Datz restaurant, Woodhouse Day Spa and Club Pilates. Atop the first two floors is a city-owned parking garage with five decks. Floors three and four will be dedicated to museum parking.

Architectural metaphors are present in almost every detail of both the exterior and interior. Entry to the James Museum is through a massive sculptural element wrought from sandstone suggesting a vertical version of mesas, the elevated formations, usually cliffs, found in the West. Walking through it also suggests ancient cave dwellings. The rest of the perimeter is swathed in patinated copper "which will vary and weather with time," Weymouth said.

Inside the two-story lobby, walls are lined with more sandstone, imported from India and "cut and installed in such a way as to suggest layers and striations" of arroyos, dry creek beds that sometimes flood. That rush of water is represented by a black granite waterfall, which functions as a sculpture court for James' massive bronze sculptures. It's flanked by an event space, museum shop and a cafe that will be run by Datz. Diners will be lured into the cafe by a massive early 19th century bar on the back wall, once located in a historic San Francisco hotel. A 129-seat auditorium will offer films, talks and entertainment.

Stairs leading to seven second-floor permanent collection galleries are angled like switchback roads. The galleries are painted in the shifting, earthy colors of the landscape and each color marks a gallery theme: early West, native life, native artists, frontier and new West. The wildlife galleries are not exclusively western.

"We love animals," James said. "So we have a collection of animal art, too."

The Jewel Box gallery is seductive and charming. Fashioned as the crystal-lined interior of a geode, it houses Mary James' collection of jewelry and accessories by Southwestern artists. Most pieces are wrought in silver and embedded with precious stones. Convincing her to transfer them from home to the museum wasn't easy, James said, but it helped that she can take any item out at any time.

"I told her she didn't have to put it all in the museum, that I would buy her more," he said.

The couple also has an extensive group of art by Florida artists that will not be part of the permanent collection. Instead, it will be rotated in a 4,000-square-foot special exhibitions gallery along with works by young contemporary artists.

The parking space seemed at first aesthetically problematic because of its faux Mediterranean appearance.

"It reminded me of mission church bell towers," James said, "but Yann hated them."

"I have come to like them," Weymouth said, after making a few modifications on them. "They are sort of a Spanish style."

Museum director Bernice Chu, hired in August, acknowledged the perception of the Western narrative has evolved over time into a more complex, nuanced story. And there are sensitive issues.

"We have Native American advisers we reach out to," she said, noting that different tribes can have different beliefs and protocols.

When the project was first announced, James committed $75 million, figuring about $40 million would build the facility and the remainder would be used for an endowment. He based the figure on what it took to build the Salvador Dali Museum, where he served as board chairman.

"When I first started thinking about doing this," he said, "reveling in the Dali doing so well, I said, that's good tailwind for this museum."

He sees the James Museum as part of a constellation of arts destinations in the downtown — the Dali, the Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg, the Chihuly Collection and the Museum of the American Arts and Crafts Movement, now under construction.

Costs have exceeded his estimate. Of the $75 million, he said, "I've probably spent that." He and Mary James have pretty much forged the project on their own. Now he says he's ready to form a board of trustees and introduce naming opportunities and other fundraising programs.

"I want them to be for the endowment, not the building," he said.

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